How Ray-Ban Wayfarers became a cultural icon

If someone asked you to draw a pair of sunglasses, chances are you’d draw one of two Ray-Ban classics: the Aviator, or the Wayfarer. Founded in 1936 by Bausch & Lomb, Ray-Ban was born out of necessity as US Air Force pilots required aviation sunglasses that reduced glare. While the Aviator kicked things off, it was the Wayfarer which propelled the company into the consciousness of the masses.

In the beginning…

The post war era of the 1950s saw American culture take off domestically and internationally with Ray-Ban Wayfarers right in the middle of it. Designed by Raymond Stegeman in 1952, he set out to create an instant classic as celebrated as Eames chairs and Cadillac tail fins.

It certainly helps to have your product showcased in some of the most iconic films of all time such as the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause when James Dean rocked the Wayfarer.

Bob Dylan is widely credited with popularising the Wayfarer, seemingly never taking his pair off whether inside or out. By wearing the lenses, they became synonymous with his antiestablishment view on the world at the time. It’s difficult to ascertain however as to which model or edition he most typically wore as many archive photos show his glasses with the tell-tale silver detailing either absent or vertical rather than horizontal.

Things started to cool a bit for the Wayfarer as other styles from the late 60s and through the 70s dominated.

1980s revival

However, things went up a notch for the Wayfarer in the 1980s. Film after film had actors wearing the iconic lenses alongside other Ray-Ban models boosting the brand’s presence, notably the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, and 1983’s Risky Business.

It wasn’t just film where the Ray-Ban Wayfarer made an impact, as the music industry also played a part. For his 1987-89 Bad tour, Michael Jackson wore Wayfarers, the association with the original cool or “rebel” factor that James Dean completely owned in the 1950s rubbing off.

Prior to this, and well before product placement found its way into every rap flow, Don Henley famously sang the lyrics “You got that hair slicked back and those Wayfarers on, baby” in his 1984 hit The Boys Of Summer, a song which is now a classic much like Wayfarers are today.

Don Johnson wore the Wayfarer effortlessly on the small screen in Miami Vice while Tom Cruise went from Wayfarers to Aviators in Top Gun to Clubmaster in Rainman.

1990s decline

When the 1990s rolled around Wayfarers were in a second decline, impacted by various new styles including wraparound sports glasses to thinner metal edged and tinted frames. This coincided with the buyout of Bausch & Lomb who sold the company to Luxxotica for a reported $640 million dollars in 1999. Luxxotica then set about turning the brand and in particular the Wayfarer, around.

2000s Wayfarer revival 

The original Wayfarers had a pronounced tilt which gave a distinctive look. However, they weren’t to everyone’s taste and nor were they entirely practical as they allowed more light in through the top of the lens than necessary, depending on your facial structure. So in 2001 the original Wayfarers came in for a redesign with the frames smaller and tilt removed, while materials moved from acetate to injected plastic.

Armed with the New Wayfarers (RB2132), Ray-Ban set about rebuilding faith in the product with celebrities starting to wear the sunglasses. Vintage Wayfarers started to make their way onto the like of eBay and increasing in popularity and the idea of authenticity started to permeate throughout society. Ray-Ban picked up on the demand and released the Original Wayfarer (RB2140) solidifying the Wayfarer’s classic status. 

In film

But Ray-Ban’s success wasn’t all about the Wayfarer. Just about every model in the line-up has appeared in some of the worlds most influential and popular movies from the 1950s to today making the brand synonymous with “cool”.

Check out just some of the actors and artists who have worn Ray-Ban sunglasses on the big screen, small screen, and in music over the years, most in their iconic roles:

Today, there are a few variations available of the Wayfarer centred around the three core offerings:

Original Wayfarer classic (RB2140)

This is the relaunched Original Wayfarer based off the original “tilted” model (B&L5022). The differences with the original of the 1950s lie in the arms with the studs replaced by a Ray-Ban logo, and the Ray-Ban logo adorning the right lens as well.

New Wayfarer (RB2132)

The New Wayfarer is an adaption of the original Wayfarer (B&L5022). With the tilt removed and lens frame depth reduced it adapted to more faces while also providing better sunlight protection. There are differences around the hinge mechanism with the arms flush to the rim.

Folding Wayfarer (RB4105)

The Folding Wayfarers are recognised by the slightly more pronounced bridge facilitating the folding mechanism, and a slight alteration to the hinge which sits flush with the edge rather than behind the rims. Of course, the Folding Wayfarers do exactly that: they fold for further compactness.

A product that is considered classic today generally goes through a rise at launch, a period of decline (and risk of cancellation), before being revived and deemed a classic. The Porsche 911 is one such example as are Converse Chuck Taylor All-stars.

Wayfarers have now entered that transcendent product phase where they are virtually protected from the whims of fashion. They are an icon.

    1. I’m glad you mentioned Dylan, one of the biggest originators. The details on his Wayfarers threw me (the studs were different or removed). Perhaps he took to them and made them his own but I couldn’t find any sources to validate.

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